How Sudan became the potential food basket for Central Africa in the 1960s  

Stephen Nartey March 08, 2023
A traditional hafir/Photo credit: spiegel

In the 1960s, Sudan was dubbed the potential food basket of Central Africa because of its vast land size measuring 2.5 million square kilometers, and its stretch of nine neighbors from its northern to eastern borders. The challenge, however, was how to transform its land for agricultural use in the face of inadequate water to spearhead this vision.

The land in the southern part of Sudan was covered with deposits of clay, making it difficult for farmers to make use of it. Aside from that, there was a plateau the country’s population of 14 million at the time had to contend with. Whenever it rained, the many tributaries lining the plateau sucked the water into the White Nile, which moved onto the clay plain. In addition to the challenges that confronted farmers there, the rainy season in Sudan only lasted for four months. This meant that for the remaining period of the year, farmers had no option but to depend on the few shallow wells and reservoirs to water their crops.

However, a study on the hafir linings in the Darfur province of Western Sudan by the hydraulics research station in England, revealed that the people with support from local authorities were pioneering innovative water harvesting technology known as hafir, to store large volumes of water that usually went waste after the rainy season. The hafir is a hollow dugout in the ground, built to harvest runoff water during the rainy season. It is popular, especially in semi-arid regions where there are short patterns of rainfall.

There are two types of hafir, the natural one forms as a result of gullies created around the clay plains and accumulates water over a period of time, while the artificial one is engineered by observing the traditional water storing methods. Since the discovery of this mechanism, it has become a game changer for many communities, farmers, nomads, livestock, and domestic users.

The construction of the mechanized hafirs began in 1946 in Sudan but was popularized in the 1960s because of the growing food demand of the population. They were shallow dugs in the natural clay pans which were occasionally flooded during the wet season. In the first two decades since the emergence of the mechanized hafirs, 500 were built to supply the water needs of farmers in Western Sudan. The only challenge was the short lifespan of this mechanism.

Its importance in the sixties attracted the government’s attention to establishing a department to see to the construction of hafirs in communities with water challenges. Notwithstanding, the technology had its own share of challenges, from seepage of water from heavy rainfall to the inspection of pollution. Studies however point to how it has revolutionized the culture of all-year-round farming in Sudan.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: March 8, 2023

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